If you routinely take public transportation in a city like New York, you, like me, may also play the "Count the Cotton Canvas Tote Bags" game on one or both legs of your daily commute. One Monday, between two half-hour voyages on the 2 train, I spotted 12: The New Yorker totes, Outdoor Voices totes, Madewell's "Bien Fait" totes, all of which were absolutely stuffed to the gills and none of which looked particularly comfortable.
I say the latter because I had just been betrayed by one such tote. Despite receiving it for free, I use it almost daily to lug all the equipment now required of us — a laptop, multiple chargers, a water bottle, a ceramic container full of homemade Zuppa Toscana, a single fork, a collection of hopes and dreams dashed by corporate greed, climate change and a broken political system, a notepad — between my home and place of work. One evening, my shoulder region simply had enough, or so said a physical therapist I consulted when I woke up unable to move my neck in either direction. It was, in Miranda Hobbes's neck-braced words, "bullshit," and more than a little pathetic.
I felt betrayed by my tote, the same one that more or less indoctrinated me to the ever-glamorous lifestyle of a public transit commuter. My tote allowed me to carry a more stylish crossbody bag while still transporting my stuff wherever we (my stuff and I) needed to go. But with such frequent use, it was also quite literally wearing me down.
Commuter bags have advanced through many iterations in its already-decades-long evolution. With roots in the second-wave of feminism of the 1960s, they've shifted in tandem with the broader accessories and clothing trends of the time. They've gotten where they are today — injuring my trapezius muscles — on its way to getting smarter and more ergonomic, with brands honing in on designs that tick both form and function boxes.
As we plunge further into the belly of the so-called "gig" economy, commuter bags are only becoming more lucrative. Today, the freelance or self-employed sector is growing three times faster than the overall U.S. workforce. As of 2016, 34% of Americans were considered to be part of the gig economy, a figure that is expected to grow to 43% by 2020, according to Intuit.
Where do commuter bags play into all this? With freelancers becoming more of a mainstay in today's workforce, many more workers are left to their own devices when it comes to structuring their workdays. For millions in the U.S. and around the world, the traditional 9-to-5 commute is changing, but the amount of work to be completed between and surrounding those hours is not.
"I feel like a lot of people, especially in New York City, have always dealt with this idea that once you leave your apartment, sometimes you don't know when you're going to come back home," says Dan Joo, who co-founded leather accessories brand Haerfest (pronounced like "harvest") with his brother, Tim Joo, in 2011. "What keeps us grounded are the things in our bag, and it's almost like our office between offices."
But commuter bags are not entirely tied to the gig economy, especially considering the nearly 60% of U.S. adults who are still traveling to and fro ye olde full-time job each day. Of course, this action — journeying to and from one's workplace — is from where commuter bags originated. And in the case of womenswear, this is an origin story that began in earnest in the early 1940s, in the midst of World War II, with the release of the U.S. government's Rosie the Riveter propaganda campaign.
When I get on the phone with Jeannine Scimeme, adjunct assistant professor in Accessories Design at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), she explains this was the first occasion that women en masse were entering the workforce at unprecedented rates. Between 1940 and 1945, the female percentage of the U.S. workforce increased from 27% to nearly 37%; by WWII's end in 1945, nearly one in every four married women worked outside the home.
In her lucrative wartime factory work, Rosie the Riveter did not have much need for a commuter bag. But with the dawn of the second-wave of feminism in the early 1960s, the women's labor force rose again, this time with that first spike of baby boomers. From 1964 to 1974, the female workforce grew by another 43%, and women needed a new kind of holdall to cater to her many responsibilities.
"Working women spent up to a third of their day traveling to and from work — picking up and dropping off children, having lunch, shopping, running errands," says Scimeme. "They really needed a bag that covered everything."
In 1964, acclaimed designer Bonnie Cashin, widely considered one of the pioneering forces of American sportswear, released her acclaimed shopper tote. The bag came in three different sizes and was specifically engineered to be able to carry another, much smaller handbag inside as needed.
It was, historically, a hit.
"[Cashin] was the designer who started the movement of carrying two bags to work," says Scimeme. "It was definitely for busy, working women. If she carried two bags, that woman was working outside the home. And [Cashin] believed that women had so many roles, one bag wasn't enough."
Cashin's impact is the stuff of accessory legend, setting the course for the incomparable likes of Miuccia Prada and her line of black nylon bags, which were first released in 1978. By the mid-1980s, Scimeme recalls that the totes and backpacks and mid-sized crossbodies were visible on every corner of Manhattan, a literal garbage island quietly swaddled in trilobal nylon.
Come the 1990s, open totes — today known as "shoppers" — began reigning supreme with houses like Louis Vuitton and Goyard wearing the crown. These are totes into which one could throw just about anything and everything, often complemented by smaller bags that can slip right inside, Cashin-style.
Which catches us up to present day, where we are still, as it were, being swallowed by bags that have structural similarities to an above-ground swimming pool. Remember the Fall 2017 runways, which hosted a small army of notably enormous bags, from Balenciaga to Gucci to Philo-era Céline? But Scimeme has seen some pushback from consumers who, in this period marked by aesthetic minimalism and the KonMari Method, seek more organization in their lives.
Dan and Tim Joo's Haerfest, a member of the 2018 CFDA Fashion Incubator class, has been building toward that ideal since its start. In late September, the brand launched a campaign for a new collection they hope takes their designs one step further, and makes it more seamless than ever to be a person in the workforce in 2019, regardless of the nature of your actual profession.
Dan and Tim cheekily named their latest range the Apollo Collection, in reference to our new frontier of work and travel, and how the two intersect. While Haerfest carries product on its own e-commerce site, these bags are exclusively available in limited quantities on Indiegogo, a nod to the "super-engaged and super-vocal" crowdfunding community.
With Haerfest's Apollo Collection, the brothers went deep into the lives — and more specifically, the pain points — of their always-commuting consumer. They are pious about customer feedback, mining Haerfest's social media platforms and shopper testimonials for micro-specific suggestions about how they can further functionalize their products.
"We thought, 'OK, if people are carrying this bag every day, we're going to need to make some changes and we're going to need to make it a bit more comfortable," says Dan. "It still has to look sleek, it has to look professional, but we're going to make it easier for people."
Tim offers the case of one woman who changed between heels and flats at least two to three times a day, which they addressed by adding a dedicated shoe pocket into the tote and duffel. One customer wished their water bottle wouldn't tip over and leak onto the bottom of their bag, so they added a compartment large enough to fit a S'well. Another hated digging for their keys at the end of the day — lo and behold, the internal key strap was born.
Alas, my branded canvas tote provides no place for my keys aside from the very bottommost corner, and my own water bottle has a tendency of dribbling everywhere at a moment's notice. So why am I still grabbing for it morning after morning?
"The canvas shopper came around when everybody started looking to replace plastic bags, and then people gave them out all the time," says Scimeme. "Everybody got free canvas bags — how wonderful! — and you can use them every day. It's kind of like you're saying, 'I actually care about the environment,' when you're carrying it around."
Everyone loves something free, especially something free that's also a status symbol on par with a bag with a five-figure price tag. That still doesn't excuse its ergonomics, which aren't just a mess, but also posing as a legitimate health hazard.
Dr. Charla Fischer, an orthopedic surgeon at NYU Langone's Spine Center confirms as much, if more tactfully. In an email, she explains that routinely carrying a heavy, one-sided bag can lead to repetitive strains on your shoulder, neck and back muscles, and that lead to those muscles a) overstretching, b) contracting and c) spasming. Spasming!
"I see a lot of patients with back muscle pain related to the worker's lifestyle of a heavy bag: a long commute in the car or on public transportation, poor ergonomics at the office with laptop use and working at home on the laptop on the couch or in bed," says Dr. Fischer. "All of these activities, repeated five days a week, can lead to back muscle spasm."
Backpacks are a much safer option, preferably those with wide shoulder straps and a lumbar belt. While normcore's tent-pitching, granola-crunching sibling "gorpcore" has whittled down a place for chunky Patagonia backpacks in fashion's mainstream, Prada, say, is far from embracing something like a built-in support brace. But that doesn't mean we should abandon ergonomics altogether. Dr. Fischer suggests we start by considering the weight of the bag itself, and reducing it accordingly, likely drastically.
"The best advice I can give patients is to limit the weight of their bag to three to five pounds," she says. "This means not carrying a laptop everywhere. This also means not putting everything you might ever need in your bag and just limiting your bag to the essentials you use every day."
Ideally, her patients have separate computers at their home and their place of work. But should that not be an option and your company-issued computer is a laptop, as mine is, you better make sure the bag you're carrying it in is practical, thoughtfully designed or if all else fails, light.
"We don't tout our bag as being the only one that's going to eliminate all your back pain," says Tim. "Rather, it's for every small hardship you go through when you travel and commute — our bags are considered specifically for those reasons."
It took three weeks for my neck to return to normal, and whether out of buried masochism or sheer laziness, I haven't stopped carrying that canvas tote. But oddly enough, I do take comfort in knowing there are other options for me if and when I change my mind. Because as our jobs are changing, so are the bags we carry to go to them.
Homepage photo: Edward Berthelot/Getty Images